Vol. 10, No 17, Summer 2013
Vol. 9, No. 16, Summer 2012
Vol. 8, No. 15, Winter 2011
Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011
Robert D. Wilson, Philippines
TO BE OR NOT TO BE
An Experiment Gone Awry
An Essay on Haiku Aesthetics
"Since becoming the sport of amateurs and ignoramuses, haiku have become more and more numerous, more and more banal."
Tr. by Janine Beichman
His Life and Works
My father, mouth
and anus wide open ---
a shining cloud
Ban'ya Natsuishi, Japan
Mending the holes
of my raincoat - that's the way
I became a Marxist
Dimitar Anakiev, Slovenia
Mending the Holes of My Raincoat
to stay awake
Linda L. Ashok, India
Chai Leaves MultiLingual Haiku
Jack Galmitz, New York, U.S.A.
new fish pond --the cat learns to swim
Lorin Ford, Australia
Terebess Asia Online
as the world fails saxophone in the lips of a walrus
Marlene Mountain, U.S.A.
I add a rubber ducky
to the bubble bath
Roberta Beary, Washington D.C., U.S.A.
First Prize Winner of the 2012
Kiyoshi and Kiyoko Tokutomi Memorial Haiku Contest
a plastic daisy dangles
from a woman's hat
Ernest Berry, New Zealand
Honorable Mention of the 2013
23rd Ito en Oi ocha New Haiku Contest
nevertheless fall colors
Christopher Patchel, U.S.A.
3rd Place in the 2013
First Annual Peggy Willis Lyles Haiku Awards
John Stevenson, New York, U.S.A.
Haiku in English 2013
LeRoy Gorman, Ontario, Canada
A Hundred Gourds, June 2013
O, somebody's wife!
carrying ice skates
with wet blades
Tr. by Hoshino Tsunehiko and Adrian J. Pinnington
Haiku International Association, Japan
Like a Tarzan
with Jane tucked under his arm
Tr. by Ban'ya Natsuishi & David G. Lanoue
Niigata Prefecture, Japan
whiskey I sip it until it loves me
Jim Kacian, Virginia, U.S.A.
Gendai Haiku webpage
Helen Buckingham, Bristol, United Kingdom
Under the Basho Autumn 2013
three folds ago . . .
is when I blew it!
Mike Rehling, Michigan, U.S.A.
Under the Basho Autumn 2013
To say something or not to say something, to cater to the crowd eating peanuts and juicy hot dogs loaded to the gills with fixings in the ballpark, anticipating home-runs that never quite happen, our bodies in sync, like oncoming waves, one after another, waiting their turn, the bark of seagulls, the breathy whisper of watery hands grasping at sand castles begging to be built in children's dreams, the night before next, an afterbirth of now dripping down Humpty Dumpty's heavily tattooed right arm, the King's Men around the corner, smoking cigarettes, quaffing beers, scratching their balls, staring into mirrors left over from the rice paddies they walked across when Wonderland played hopscotch with Alice and . . . sanity scurried.
Leave me alone, Basho-san! I don't want to be a David casting stones in a makeshift slingshot at Goliath, the all-star pitcher for the New York Yankees, my psyche tossed and turned on third base, waiting for ghosts scurrying into chalky clouds that hissssssssssssss like a badass rattlesnake!
What to do? I love hokku and waka, have a love affair with Japanese short form poetry, read and write verses on trellises of ah, immerse myself in research, empty my mind of preconception, follow zôka into what is and isn't, unable to stay still, feeling more than words, my senses on warp speed, racing the tide through Heaven's River, every star, an amusement ride, redesigning itself in the morning when egrets are dreaming.
I have watched in the shadows too long, waiting for the good faerie to rescue Japanese short form poetry from the abyss it's sunk into, an old man with Alzheimer's disease, wandering in circles without direction, a caricature of yesterday, now stooped under a willow tree that hasn't wept in years, Orphan Annie-eyed, neon lights flashing on and off, on and off, on and off, your mind, Basho-san, hanging from a clothesline with could-have-beens on loan from the Self Important Society of America plastered with labels shouting MADE IN JAPAN!
I pull a brass ring from the carousel at The Wonderland Amusement Park, oh shit, here goes, Don Quixote's inside me, nudging me to joust with windmills, telling me to march into hell, if need be, regardless of the cost, dodging mirrors, soldiers of the Inquisition aim at me, sure that I will falter, stumble, or acquiesce to the bliss seated in the empty chair Clint Eastwood spoke to when the audience died last year, a minute past midnight, the last syllable stuffed into a shoe Cinderella left next to the Prince's fuel-injected shadow . . . the drum-roll, please:
HAIKU ISN'T A GENRE. There, I said it. Too late to back down now: It's not a genre, a reformation of hokku, nothing that can be defined.
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a genre as "a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content."
To be a genre, haiku must be definable. In and outside of Japan, there is no agreed-upon definition. There is no East and West. Western and Japanese haiku are one and the same, a concatenate of this and that with more that than this, a reflection laughing at its shadow.
Look at some of the definitions of haiku prancing through conference rooms, the overpriced decks of the Queen Mary, university causeways, yuppie cafes, North American public schools, dictionaries, online journals, printed anthologies, and books claiming to offer what other books on haiku haven't offered. See for yourself. What Matsuo Basho introduced to Japan during his lifetime, and what you read, see, and hear from the above, are not co-pilots of the same starship.
Compare the then with the now . . .
the sea darkens ---
a wild duck's call
Tr. by Makoto Ueda
The focus of this hokku is not the duck (object). It's a poem that evokes a surplus of meaning due to the use of the aesthetic style, yugen (depth and mystery) and contrast. Nature is a never-ending movie, a continuum of expression. Basho could not see the duck, only hear it. Faintly white, a wild duck's call? Noise is colorless. The sea, at twilight, however, is ghost-like, surreal, even mysterious if the weather is inclement. Comments Iwata Kuro in his book on Basho, Shochu Hyoshaku Basho Haiku Taisei:
"The whiteness was seen through the eye and the voice was heard through the ear, but he [Basho] felt as if his eyes saw what his ears heard, and he made that delicate feeling into a poem."
Tr. by Makoto Ueda
end of the world
I blow apart
Garry Gay, Santa Rosa, California
First Place Winner of the 2013
The Heron's Nest First Annual Peggy Willis Lyles Haiku Award
Gay's poem leaves little to be interpreted. Blowing on a dandelion reminds the poet of the world ending, a subjective thought.
through a vast bamboo forest
Tr. by Makoto Ueda
Basho's poem is an activity-biased hokku. The bamboo, the cuckoo bird, the moonlight are not the poem's focus. Its focus is the creative output of the said and unsaid, what is and what's implied. The cuckoo bird's singing is contrasted (juxtaposed) with the seeping of moonlight through a vast, dense bamboo forest. The song is sensed in that it cannot be translated. It resonates, and is flowing with the moonlight slowly, whose light is shaded and sculpted by shadows and the space between the thick bamboo in the forest. The sense of silence is intense. Nothing in nature is static; nothing is predictable. All is changing and impermanent. Basho was continually observant of nature's creative force, zoka. It was his sensei. There is much a poet can learn and express from such an awareness. Zoka is the thread that weaves our hokku. In today's world, too much is made of humankind's activities and egocentric comprehension. We are not above nature. We are a small part of nature.
Comments Kenkichi Yamamoto in his book, Basho: Appreciations and Criticism of His Work:
"The combination of the moonbeams slanting through the grove and the hototogisu calling as it flies straight for the horizon creates a world so mysterious that it is almost frightening."
Tr. by Makoto Ueda
back home on leave
he stalks the cereal aisle
on the balls of his feet
1st Place Co-winner of the 2013
Klostar Ivanic's 10th Annual Contest for Haiku in English
Jenkins’ poem leaves little to be interpreted. An object stalks an object using objects. It is a senryu listed as a haiku. The poem is object-biased and, as such, has no connection with the creative force, zoka, Matsuo Basho said was essential to a hokku. It's a sentence, not a poem. A returning soldier is excited to once again be in a grocery store staring at cereal boxes. Giving credence to this sentence, classifying it as a poem, encourages others to write sentences and call them haiku.
The winter sun ---
Frozen on the horse,
Tr. by Makoto Ueda
Can a person's shadow be frozen on a horse's back? Basho is utilizing the aesthetic tool, yugen, to evoke a surplus of meaning. It is a very cold day, un-warmed by the winter sun. The contrast (juxtaposition) between the winter sun and the seemingly frozen shadow on the horse gives voice to the unsaid; stimulating an exploration of the affects of winter on one's surroundings. The weather's unpredictable, creating, shading, painting, sculpting without a pattern to follow. The shadow is frozen, or is it? Nothing is still, all is changing, the naked eye limited to the scope of vision and subjective interpretation. Basho's hokku is an activity-biased poem that's koto-focused (the act of becoming). What appears to be and what is form a symbiotic alliance that is more than a word painting. “Frozen” and “the winter sun” juxtaposed together evoke a surplus of meaning.
a lifetime of memories
in her wrinkled face
Raj K. Bose, Hawaii, U.S.A.
Grand Prize Winner in Non-Japanese Division of the 2013
5th Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum English Haiku Contest
A woman is quietly hiding a lifetime of memories in her wrinkled face. This is a subjective (mono), human-centric haiku without a correlative or mimetic connection to nature and/or its seasons. There is little to interpret for the reader. It is a senryu focused on the effects and affects of aging on a woman.
They are very different maladies, now and then. Is now the fruit of progress, evolution, literary expanse, or, a complete departure from Japanese poetic expression and aesthetic exploration? Basho's hokku and the above haiku have different focuses. Are Basho's poems passé, irrelevant, and out of sync with today? Is the now an adaptation of the modern world, the then something to be jettisoned? Am I missing the mark doing a comparative analysis of modern haiku and Basho's hokku written centuries ago? Which are deeper? Which are memorable? Which are open to a reader's subjective interpretation? Which are symbiotically in tune with the becomingness of nature? Which will be remembered a hundred years from now and why?
How is haiku defined by the world? Why isn't there a consensual agreement? Is it a reformation of hokku? Is haiku a Japanese poetic voice? Is haiku more than an assemblage of words placed in one, two, three, or even four lines? Is there such a thing as a one-word haiku? A two-word haiku?
OR, has haiku become, as I will conjecture in this essay, an anything-goes medium without rules and definitive schemata; a masturbatory exercise of words?
The United Haiku and Tanka Society's definition of haiku:
"Haiku is a succinct write equal to 3 lines (it doesn't matter how that equal is arranged, 1 line, 2 lines, or in 3 lines), but what does matter are the rest of the requirements, which are: that it captures a sensory perceived moment, and contains either a kigo (season word) that directly indicates a season, or other words that indirectly evoke a feeling of the natural world we live in. It has a 2-punch juxtaposition that equals a kireji (cutting word) which creates a conscious pause. Haiku no longer must always conform to the 5,7,5 syllable count; rather it should be close to a short, long, short rhythm. The correctly written haiku contains a setting, subject, verb, plus an 'aha' moment, which can compare to the sound of the 'pop' of that very first 'kernel' when you make popcorn."
Some insist on the use of season words (kigo) and some do not.
Wrote Ogiwara Seisensui of Japan in 1913:
"The season is a fetter fastened on the living flesh."
Wrote George Swede in his essay, Towards a Definition of English Haiku in 2000:
"Without involving some aspect of nature, a poem cannot be a haiku. While human nature can be a part of a haiku, it must occur together with something from the outside world, otherwise the poem becomes a senryu."
Posits Ban'ya Natsuishi of Japan:
"I believe that haiku poem can be written well without season words, written well in free form and not only in 5-7-5 syllables."
Was Matsuo wrong when he taught his disciples:
Saigyo's waka, Sogi's renga, Sesshü ' s painting, Rikyu's tea ceremony-one thread runs through the artistic Ways. And this aesthetic spirit is to follow the Creative, to be a companion to the turning of the four seasons. Nothing one sees is not a flower, nothing one imagines is not the moon. If what is seen is not a flower, one is like a barbarian; if what is imagined is not the moon, one is like a beast. Depart from the barbarian, break away from the beast, follow the Creative [zoka], return to the Creative [zoka].
Tr. by David Landis Barnhill
Refer to my essay, To Kigo or Not to Kigo for a detailed look at the role nature should play in a hokku, a role that is sorely misunderstood due to a lack of scholarly articles on the subject: http://haikureality.webs.com/esejeng102.htm
The Haiku Society of America's definition of haiku:
"A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition."
Notes: Most haiku in English consist of three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables, with the middle line longest, though today's poets use a variety of line lengths and arrangements. In Japanese a typical haiku has seventeen 'sounds' ( on) arranged five, seven, and five. (Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about twelve syllables in English approximate the duration of seventeen Japanese on.) Traditional Japanese haiku include a 'season word' (kigo), a word or phrase that helps identify the season of the experience recorded in the poem, and a 'cutting word' ( kireji), a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause or gives emphasis to one part of the poem. In English season words are sometimes omitted, but the original focus on experience captured in clear images continues. The most common technique is juxtaposing two images or ideas (Japanese rensô). Punctuation, space, a line-break, or a grammatical break may substitute for a cutting word. Most haiku have no titles, and metaphors and similes are commonly avoided. (Haiku do sometimes have brief prefatory notes, usually specifying the setting or similar facts; metaphors and similes in the simple sense of these terms do sometimes occur, but not frequently. A discussion of what might be called 'deep metaphor' or symbolism in haiku is beyond the range of a definition."
Merriam Webster Dictionary:
Haiku is "an unrhymed verse form of Japanese origin having three lines containing usually five, seven, and five syllables respectively; also: a poem in this form usually having a seasonal reference."
any'a, the editor of cattails wrote:
"My Editor's Choices are never based on the number of lines, since format to me has nothing to do with content, nor do I think a kigo is mandatory, although I do believe that at least some ‘feeling’ of the natural world is a must, as well as a setting, subject, verb, and an aha, no matter in what order they appear. Unfortunately, there are others out there today who are publishing 'short poems' of any type or kind under the guise of haiku. While this may be fine for mainstream poetry, imo, it's a whole different story when it comes to Japanese and eastern aesthetics."
Wrote R.H. Blyth in his book, The History of Haiku, Volume One:
"Haiku being the poetry of sensation, ideally speaking what happens is this. We receive, or create, a sensation, a mere sensation, almost entirely physical and mechanical. It then becomes humanized, and at this stage is called in Zen, dai-ichi nen. Haiku is dai-ichi nen, but is not mere description, just photography. One of the worst things in the world is mere sensation smeared all over with emotion and thought . . ."
Writes Hamish Ironside in her essay, Against Petty Lies: Veracity in Haiku, featured in the September 2013 issue of A Hundred Gourds:
"Haiku must be very short. Beyond a certain length, even if they fulfill every other criterion that you associate with haiku, they are no longer haiku; they may be tanka, or something else entirely."
Wrote Michael Dylan Welch in the Haiku Canada Review (October 2008):
"Each haiku poem is about a ‘now,’ but that’s different from 'now' being the only way a haiku can be inspired. Quite simply, the 'now' in the poem need not be the 'now' of when the poem was written."
Note: Basho, Buson, Doho, and Issa did not teach their followers to compose hokku centric to an aha haiku moment. The aforementioned is the invent of R.H. Blyth and Kenneth Yasuda based upon the false precept that haiku is a Zen Buddhist poetic genre. Scholars today know that Matsuo Basho was deeply influenced by animism, Daoism and the Zhuangzi; that his poetic mindset was a concatenate of the religious and cultural beliefs indigenous to his cultural memory and depth of experience, which included Zen Buddhism without its being an end-all.
Writes A.V. Koshy in Ichhamoti Review (Vol I Issue I 2013):
“How to Write a Haiku
It is easy to write a haiku nowadays. The rules that bound it earlier to season words, season or cutting words have all been slowly eroded and all that remains is the rule of the 5-7-5 and of image centred poetry that also involves contrast or juxtaposition that need not even be ‘sharp.’ In short haikus resembles senryus more and more, nowadays.”
Writes Billy Collins in the Introduction to Modern English Haiku: The First Hundred Years, published by W.W. Norton, compiled by Jim Kacian, Allan Burns, and Philip Rowland:
"The best haiku contain a moment in time caught in the amber of the poet's attention and the poem's words. It is the only genre fully devoted to setting down a simple observation in the here-in-now so as to produce in the reader a little gasp."
Matsuo Basho never taught this dictum proffered by Wilson. Basho often reworked his hokku, adapting a specific poem to use in a haibun or travel diary written much later. He also drew on his memory to compose hokku. I am reminded of an adage I learned from my father:
"Don't believe everything you read or hear. Check things out for yourself."
Not everything written in a book that claims to be definitive is indeed accurate. Anyone can write a book and promulgate their theories, and do so convincingly.
According to Kacian, the book, Modern English Haiku: The First Hundred Years is to be a "new benchmark in the study and understanding of English-language haiku." The 400-page volume showcases the work of more than 230 poets, and a 74-page overview of the genre which isn't a genre. Kacian's concept of haiku differs greatly from the masters who gave the world hokku. Some of the haiku showcased were penned by Imagist poets who were influenced by haiku but never claimed to be haiku poets:
Thin air! My mind is gone.
Last night it rained.
Now, in the desolate dawn,
crying of blue jays
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Note: Pound referred to this poem as "a hokku-like poem." He never labeled it a haiku as it's referred to quasi-authoritatively by Jim Kacian in the compendium book, Modern English Haiku: The First Hundred Years.
Some of the poems labeled haiku in the book were penned by Beat poets who hurriedly read through the writings of R.H. Blyth and Kenneth Yasuda at Gary Snyder's small Berkeley California house, most of them high on drugs and liquor:
floating face down in the water bucket
a drowned mouse
A drowned mouse floating face down in a water bucket is hardly an epiphany nor does it reveal to us something we don't already know about nature. It is an observational statement, nothing more.
How is the following any different?
sleeping on the plush living room carpet
a tired toddler
emerges from the movies:
the street at lunchtime.
A crazy man (reminiscent of Ginsberg's Howl) comes out of a movie theater at lunchtime to life as it is on the street. What does this tell us about zoka and its affect on nature? How is this not a senryu? It reads like a verse from one of Ginsberg's longer poems.
Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway
Kerouac tried to kick a refrigerator door shut and missed. It closed on its own. How is this observation a poem? How can it be thought of as part of the reformation of hokku that haiku claims to be? What does it tell us about nature, about humankind? What is there to interpret? Where are the layers, aesthetic tools, and surplus of meaning that Basho and others used to create literature still loved centuries later?
Haiku, as I have stated in previous essays belonging to this series, is a German-based university-influenced poetic voice introduced to the world via Masaoka Shiki, who borrowed heavily from Western influences. Modern English Haiku showcases haiku heavily influenced by R.H. Blyth and those influenced by the writings and poetry of modern Japanese poets and critics whose mindsets are sculpted by definitions of terms indigenous to Western thought. The influence of the ancient masters is minimal, as evidenced by the poems it showcases. Noticeably missing in this compendium are hokku penned by some of the world's leading composers of hokku. The names are familiar, as are the editors and sources. In essence, the book's history of haiku and state of haiku and definition of haiku are a rehash of what has already been written.
It lacks scholarly authority, using as references, the same old, same old. Modern English Haiku fails to be a "new benchmark in the study and understanding of English-language haiku."
Writes Don Baird in his online journal, Under the Basho in the Autumn 2013 issue:
"Within zoka, transience and the sense of impermanence are additional aspects and clearly Basho haiku/hokku aesthetics. They are uniquely entwined in the guttural tide of zoka. In this, there is no link needed ‘between’ haiku and zoka; they are one and the same."
Basho haiku/hokku aesthetics? Hokku and haiku are not the same. To claim this is to ignore history and hermeneutics.
Look at a sampling of the poetry in this journal:
my dead uncle punches
tickets to my dreams
full moon too drunk to get out of bed to piss
midnight cigar a car backfires
Johannes S. H. Berg
school waste bins
roll ro’ll stop. r’o’l’l
rol’l’ing with the wind.
Haiku and hokku are one and the same? Basho, Buson, Doho, Issa, and Chiyo-ni composed hokku. Compare their poetry with the aforementioned samples from Under the Basho.
States Baird in the editorial for the Autumn 2013 issue of Under the Basho:
"It is a journal that values the poetics and aesthetics of Basho and yet embraces much dream-space for modern thinkers and their poetic efforts."
To value the poetics and aesthetics of Matsuo Basho, one has to understand them. Too many of the poems in the Autumn 2013 issue are the antithesis of what Basho taught and practiced.
Other conceptualizations of haiku:
Wrote Ferris Gilli in her essay, Seasoning Your Haiku, for the New Zealand Poetry Society:
"The definition that I support posits, among other things, that haiku are traditionally very short poems about nature and/or man's relationship with nature (often subtly revealing human nature), and typically contain a kigo. (Humans are a part of nature, no matter how unnatural and aberrant some appear. However, ideally, a haiku should not be overbalanced with human reference.)"
States Japanese poet Onishi Yasayo in an interview with Richard Gilberton August 5, 2007 (Poems of Consciousness):
"Today haiku grazes the realm of senryu, and senryu grazes the realm of haiku."
She also states:
"When these 'latitudes' of readers and creators meet and are in agreement, we then define, 'this is haiku' and, 'that is senryu.' However, when general ideas of these genres are used to define differences between haiku and senryu, the result is that there arises a divergence between poets as creators, and public understanding."
Senryu and haiku, more often than not, have blended into a single form, the definition of senryu and the definition of haiku a gray area few care to define with any academic authoritativeness. Some think senryu is comic verse much like a comedian's one-liner asides. Others say it is human-centric, whereas haiku is nature-centric. This becomes problematic when one considers that human beings are a part of nature. Most haiku sections in on-line and printed journals lump senryu and haiku together without specific demarcation. Some examples, none specified as one or the other:
more and more
less and less
Billie Dee, San Diego, CA
Frogpond 36.2 2013
a long flight
getting to forget
the person beside me
LeRoy Gorman, Ontario, Canada
the church filled
with second thoughts
Jörgen Johansson, Lidköping, Sweden
the hound dog stuck
in the doghouse
Haiku Elvis (Carlos Colon), Louisiana, U.S.A.
neuters her dog
Bill Pauly, Dubuque, Iowa
Modern Haiku 44.2
Emily Romano, USA
Modern Haiku 44.2 2013
Definitions aren't always in print or aired online. They are implied by acceptance, publication, reference, etc. Without an agreed-upon general classification and definition by academia and mainstream haiku poetry associations and publications, haiku has become an anomaly, a literary weed that grows where it wants to, without boundaries, a whatever-it-wants Cheshire Cat on steroids. Rules? They change with publications, bloggers, books, and whims. An aha, no need for an aha; metaphors are okay, metaphors should be avoided; kigo are passé, kigo are integral.
I have cited several prominent haiku in this essay, not to embarrass their authors, but to bring to light a problem no one is addressing. Haiku is not Japanese poetry. Haiku is not a reformation of hokku. Haiku is whatever people want to call and/or name it, history and hermeneutics be damned.
winter winds blow
the rocks sharpened
among the cedars
Tr. by David Landis Barnhill
Wrote Harold Henderson in his book, Haiku in English:
"There is as yet no complete unanimity among American poets (or editors) as to what constitutes a haiku in English—how it differs from other poems which may be equally short. In other words, haiku in English are still in their infancy."
States Professor Gilbert in his paper The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A Study of Disjunctive Method and Definitions in Contemporary English-Language Haiku:
“Given that the Japanese haiku is reductively misinterpreted and the English haiku undefined, the HSA definition seems a figment of culturally projective desire.”
Wrote Abigail Friedman in her book The Haiku Apprentice:
“Much of the challenge and excitement of writing haiku in the West comes from the fact that there are no commonly agreed-upon rules. This is not so far removed from the situation in Japan. There, contemporary poets are challenging the existing haiku rules; in the West we are struggling to create them.”
Wrote Haruo Shirane in his essay, Beyond the Haiku Moment for Modern Haiku (Winter/Spring 2000):
"What many North American haiku poets have thought to be uniquely Japanese had in fact its roots in Western literary thought."
States the New World Encyclopedia:
"Due to the various views and practices today, it is impossible to single out any current style or format or subject matter as definitive 'haiku.’"
Undefined, a poetic form is formless, without perimeters, rules, and direction. Yet haiku has become just that.
A haiku is a haiku is an imagist poem is a word is a senryu is a word painting is a . . .
If haiku isn't a genre, what is it? A wet dream, a spilling of the West's bladder, the colonization of hokku? Or, worse yet, an out-of-control weed mocking Masaoka Shiki's contention during the late Meiji Era:
"I think haiku has already played itself out. Even assuming that the end is yet to come, we can confidently expect it to arrive sometime during the Meiji period."
Talks on Haiku from the Otter's Den (1892)
Tr. by Janine Beichman
His Life and Works
Has haiku played itself out today? Has it become a parlor game, a caricature of the hokku composed prior to the death of Kobayashi Issa?
What Shiki wrote in 1893 regarding the state of hokku during the Meiji Era in Japan accurately describes the current state of haiku in and outside of Japan. There is no East or West, no difference between Japanese and Western haiku, no agreed-upon definition. The late Meiji Era in Japan and the world today, in and outside of Japan, share a common denominator: an overabundance of substandard, pat-yourself-on-the-back, garbage poetry posing as the descendent of Basho's hokku.
Masaoka Shiki took the composition of hokku seriously. He did his homework, studied hard, and wrote voluminously. Coming from a samurai family, he was disciplined, putting his all into whatever he did. Needless to say, the hokku he'd studied and immersed himself into was different from what was being taught and heralded by Imperial - sanctioned haiku schools. For political reasons, Basho had been deified by the Emperor as a Shinto God. His words had become scripture.
Writes Donald Keene in his book, The Winter Sun Shines In:
"In 1806, the court bestowed on him [Basho] the title of Hion Myojin, literally 'Jumping Frog Bright Deity,' alluding to Basho's haiku on the frog that jumped into the old pond. In 1885 the government recognized the 'Old Pond Church' (Furuike Kyokai) as a religious body affiliated with the Basho sect of Shinto."
Every major haiku school claimed to have a direct line to Basho's teaching and heritage. Each school had a master poet who taught students for a fee and corrected their poetry. Such men were esteemed by the public and held up as an example by the Meiji Court, so much so, that three of them became official Court teachers. In essence, these official Imperial Court teachers were sock puppets of the Emperor, manipulated to keep the Japanese people at bay, obedient to the Emperor, and unaffected by the spreading influence of the Western world, a world formerly cut off from outsiders until Admiral Byrd forced Japan to open up its borders to the West.
Wrote Donald Keene in his epic book, Dawn to the West:
"By the time of the Meiji Restoration, not a single poet of distinction was writing; indeed, it had been almost one hundred years since anyone had composed haiku of unmistakable literary worth . . . "
Non-distinction was the hallmark of men like Hozumi Eiko (1823-1904) who was admired for such verses as:
The nightingales ---
When I was young it was love
That kept me awake
Tr. by Donald Keene
Hokku, once vibrant, in tune with the people, a verse form Basho and his contemporaries introduced to the Imperial Court in a day when renga had become a caricature of the past, a pastime for the rich and affluent, became, like its predecessor, another hobby guided by politics, tradition, and stagnation due to the same-old, same-old mentality that infects a society's need for as is. No longer taken seriously, it faced oblivion; irrelevancy, its sensei.
Hokku, in Shiki's estimation, could not, in its current condition, be taken seriously by Western mainstream literary circles. How could it be, he reasoned. The poetry said nothing, meant nothing, and lacked memorability. It became superficial and mundane, an in-one-ear, out-the-other-ear versification.
"The history of the old haikai is dry as dust; it is like chewing on wax. It can serve only to make me yawn."
Tr. by Donald Keene
The Winter Sun Shines In
Writes Donald Keene:
"He [Shiki] asserted that few of Basho's haiku were of merit and searched for examples at which to sneer." In yet what appears to be a contradiction in his essay on Basho in Shora Gyokueki, however, Shiki lauded Basho as the first serious poet since the days of the Man'yoshu. What gave? Did he admire Matsuo Basho or not?
Shiki detested the deterioration of hokku by the cult of Basho. A progressive visionary, he wanted hokku to once again be meaningful. He also wanted it to be acceptable by the Western world. He lashed out against Basho's poetry, not because he didn't like Basho as a poet, but because Matsuo Basho's deification became more important than the genre. Decrying Basho's poetry was a brilliant tactic. It immediately drew the attention of the Imperial Court and Japan's academic community. It is no secret that Shiki esteemed Basho and Buson as poets and primary influences on his haiku.
An impatient genius, fated to live a short life due to tuberculosis, Masaoka Shiki set out to reform hokku and return it to a meaningfulness in tune with his generation and a global worldview of poetics. He wasted no time and did the impossible, changing from his sickbed the genre's name to haiku, and setting into motion a movement that, in time, did the opposite of what it was intended to do. He introduced a new style, shasei, and immersed haiku into a Western Mulligan stew that viewed life and poetry through Occidental eyes.
The self-colonization of hokku, for a while, appeared revolutionary and brought hokku out of the abyss it had sunk down to. This would be short-lived.
Conforming to Western principles and influences, haiku evolved into a Western poetic voice that increasingly distanced itself from the hokku Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa had penned. Hokku is not a Western voice, nor was it ever defined by one. The Japanese language used by Basho, Buson, and Issa is not the same Japanese language in use today. Today's Japanese is a product of the German-based university system that Japan adopted during the late Meiji Era.
Wrote Michael F. Marra in his text, Modern Japanese Aesthetics:
“When we consider the impact that Western philosophy has had on Japanese scholars since the late 19th century --- and the impact that Japanese scholarship still has to this day on the ways in which Westerners represent Japan to themselves --- attention to the work of Japanese aestheticians clarifies the complex web of paradoxes in which all scholars of Japan, East and West, are inevitably trapped when talking about their subject matter. The realization that moments of cultural specificities are often couched in the language of Western realities is one of the major concerns of present-day aestheticians.”
Masaoka Shiki's shasei haiku, a concept he borrowed from Western painters, still has a strong influence on modern haiku.
"The sketch from life [shasei] is a vital element in both painting and descriptive writing: one might say that without it, the creation of either would be impossible. The sketch from life has been used in Western painting from early times; in olden times it was imperfect, but recently, it has progressed and become more precise. In Japan, however, the sketch from life has always been looked down on, so that the development of painting was hampered, and neither prose, poetry, nor anything else progressed . . . This has become a habit, and even today nine people out of ten do not appreciate the sketch from life . . . and reject it as extremely shallow. The truth is that it is imagination which is shallow and has nowhere near the variety of the sketch from life."
Sixfoot Sickbed, 1902
A sampling of Masaoka Shiki's shasei haiku:
Shiki's poem is a shasei sketch of life (a quick sketch without detail or effort): a bird sings with its mouth open. There is no mystery, nothing to evoke a surplus of meaning. It is more of an observation than a poem.
struck by a
This too is a shasei word sketch. There is nothing to interpret: a snail struck by a raindrop, retreats into its shell. It is object-biased, centered around an object. Becomingness and unpredictability are absent.
I sink my teeth
into a ripe persimmon ---
it dribbles down my beard
Tr. by Janine Beichman
This is a description of what happened to Shiki while eating a ripe persimmon: the juice drips down his beard. There is nothing to interpret or remember. It is an object-biased poem centered around an object and the affect from an object (human being) eating said object, the result all too predictable.
When I try to stand
The hinges of my back
Are bitterly cold
This is a sentence, not a poem. It is descriptive. There is no juxtaposition. The haiku is human-centric in a cause and affect arena. It is a sentence almost anyone can compose, akin to: "After I took a long walk, my lower back is sweaty and sore."
browsing under an umbrella
at the picture-book store
It is raining on a spring day. The poet is looking at books under an umbrella at a picture-book store. What is there to interpret? Shiki's poem is object-biased. It is predictable and allows no room for interpretation. It tells the reader nothing about the creativity of nature.
One moonlit night
I released every last bug
From its cage
On a moonlit night, the poet released every bug from its cage. He doesn't say why. Shiki's poem is a sentence, not a poem. It's the equivalent of writing: one moonless night I set free every fish from the fish farm. What is memorable about this poem? Ironically, Masaoka Shiki wanted haiku to be accepted by the Occidental world as a legitimate genre of poetry. Granted, the hokku written during his day were substandard. Many of Shiki's haiku, though better than the garbage hokku written during his day, ironically too, lacked depth, memorability, and literary substance.
Spring breezes ---
How I'd love to throw a ball
Over grassy fields
Line one coupled with lines two and three is hardly an epiphany. Shiki was an American baseball fan. Confined to his bed with TB, enduring continual, unbearable pain, and opiated with heavy doses of morphine, he espied a breeze, while staring out the bedroom window into his garden. There is little to interpret, the paintbrush of zoka, not evident.
Talking to myself,
hugging a hot water bottle
Shiki is talking to himself, hugging a tepid hot water bottle. The poem is an incomplete sentence, a human-centric poem. Why he is talking to himself is unimportant. Readers interpret haiku referencing their own individual cultural memories, education, experiential levels, etc. One is not privy to the poet's reasoning.
Tr. by Donald Keene
The Winter Sun Shines In
Shiki was a mediocre poet, and, therefore, not in the position to critique Basho's poetic output. He was a brilliant strategist, however, who exuded a powerful voice, and wielded that power masterfully, managing in a short time to bring to light the plight of hokku and to set into motion what no other in Japan was willing to do. This took courage, vision and genius. His criticism of the Shinto god, Matsuo Basho, garnered him an instant audience and controversy.
Masaoka Shiki was not rich, not a professor, nor a politician. His life was short (35 years), his view of nature restricted primarily to memory, imagination, and the view of the garden adjacent to his room.
He went to battle as a literary samurai, regardless of cost or losses. Compare him to Don Quixote, a non-sanctioned knight marching into hell for an impossible cause, to beat what some deemed an unbeatable foe. He rose up at a time when hokku was doomed to slide into oblivion. He is to be commended for saving it from oblivion, infusing relevance into what had become irrelevant. Saving it, however, is one thing. Setting it on a permanent course that will withstand the test of time, is another matter. Haiku's salvation has been short-lived. Shiki in his zest for Western ideas, his impatience, and a lack of time due to his illness, could only do so much.
Change occurred. The wheel was set into motion. Hokku, now named haiku, would never be the same. What was set into motion, however, was not a renewal of hokku, a redirection of its lifeblood. What Masaoka Shiki, as stated earlier in this essay, unleashed and sculpted, was Western in thought, word, and aesthetic conceptualization. This is where the experiment failed. A Westerner cannot wear a samurai mask and impersonate a true samurai. A fox cannot pretend to be a chicken and appear credible for too long, regardless of its intent or craftiness. Western-infused haiku cannot pretend to be Japanese hokku or its relative. Ancient Japan and the German-based university system mindset it adopted during the Meiji restoration are polar opposites.
Wrote Haruo Shirane
Basho, Buson, and Modern Haiku Myths
Modern Haiku, XXX:1 (Winter/Spring 2000)
"One of the widespread beliefs in North America is that haiku should be based upon one's own direct experience, that it must derive from one's own observations, particularly of nature. But it is important to remember that this is basically a modern view of haiku, the result, in part, of nineteenth century European realism, which had an impact on modern Japanese haiku and then was re-imported back to the West as something very Japanese. Basho, who wrote in the seventeenth century, would have not made such a distinction between direct personal experience and the imaginary, nor would he have placed higher value on fact over fiction."
Writes Richard Gilbert in his seminal book on haiku, Poems of Consciousness:
"There are no generalized labels in Japanese literature for a variety of poetry that is 'garbage.' Shiki Masaoka famously used 'tsukinami haiku' to mean formulaic, or hackneyed; and Hasegawa Kai recently introduced the term ‘garakuta (junk) haiku' to describe a formulaic haiku sensibility possessing objective realism as a fundamental (sadly, a majority of published haiku in English may fit into this category)."
Kai Hasekawa of Japan told me in an interview for the Autumn 2008 issue of Simply Haiku, translated by Patricia Lyons:
"Since the 19th century, Japan has learned much from the West. One thing learned is the realism (shajitsu-shugi) found in Western literature and art. Haiku is no exception; realism has had an enormous influence on haiku. In that sense, modern haiku are nothing but ‘realism haiku.’ The realism in this haiku is called shasei by haiku poets. To put it briefly, this is the idea that haiku are written about ‘things’ (that actually exist). It is certainly true that modern haiku has gained much from this realism. However, these ‘realism haiku’ contain a number of pitfalls. The greatest of these is that the haiku have lost kokoro (feeling, heart, spirit). From the time of the Man'yoshu, Japan's earliest poetry anthology, the Japanese literary arts have invested mono (things) with kokoro. Haiku are no exception. Even if they appear to be written only about things, there is definitely kokoro beneath the surface. However, because of the extremes of modern realism, kokoro is neglected, and only ‘things’ have come to be written about in haiku. These are what I referred to as ‘junk’ (garakuta) haiku. Sooner or later this tendency will have to be corrected. For one thing, it is a serious departure from the main principle of Japanese literary art. And more to the point, ‘junk haiku’ just aren't interesting.
There are also various problems related to the current state of Western haiku. They are not, however, the same problems facing Japanese haiku.
Rather, the problems are even more complicated. While the biggest problem facing Japanese haiku is that of how to reconcile haiku, a traditional form of literature indigenous to Japan, with the realism learned from the West. Haiku in the West have, in addition, the even greater problem of how to root this traditional form of literature indigenous to Japan in the cultural soil of the West. It seems to me that the current state in which ‘a lot of haiku written today in the English language by Western practitioners fall short of memorbility and depth, and appear to be formula based’ has occurred just because they have become the ‘victim of realism.’ I think that there are deeper underlying problems even before that, for example, the problem of the fundamental understanding of what a haiku is."
Thomas Lynch, in Intersecting Influences in American Haiku, sees "haiku as a current manifestation of a trend in American poetics that begins in earnest in the writings of the transcendentalists, in particular, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman and that has continued under various guises in the work of, among others, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Richard Wright, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder, and in fact a sizable number of other contemporary poets.
In short, I would contend that haiku is a genre that fulfills the poetic aspirations of important trends in American literature that have endured throughout the past century and a half. Assuredly such a slight genre could not otherwise have so greatly influenced such an imposing cast of poets did it not fulfill some deep-seated necessity in their poetic practice."
Published in Modernity in East-West Literary Criticism: New Readings, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001.
Haiku today is primarily free-based. It is whatever a poet wants it to be. There is little resemblance to the fixed, defined form Basho and others taught and composed. To claim otherwise is to ignore hermeneutics, linguistics, and the history of Japanese short form poetry prior to the death of Kobayashi Issa.
Read the following sampling of contemporary haiku. No malice is intended. They are shared to make a point, to bring to light the direction and lack of continuity the haiku path has taken since Masaoka Shiki's reformation of hokku.
the carpenter bee gives
me the wrong kind of buzz
Roberta Beary, USA
Modern Haiku, Summer 2013
Beary's poem is a senryu. It is human-centric, reminiscent of a comedian's gag line. It's subjective (the wrong kind of buzz) having little to do with the artistry dripping from zoka's brush. This poem offers no connection to the flow of seasons and the creative expression of zoka, which Basho said was essential to hokku composition. Is the connection to nature in hokku passé, the old master's teachings a fossil relic, and, therefore, no longer relevant to the reformation that is haiku?
what it is
Alice Frampton, Seabeck, Washington
September 2012 Heron's Nest Award Winning Haiku
This poem that isn't a poem is a "tell all" statement. The statement is subjective (it is what it is), and definitive, leaving no room for interpretation. Nothing is revelatory; nothing is connected with the becomingness (koto) indigenous to nature.
Is haiku an old person afflicted with dementia, its cultural memory tossed and turned, bumping into walls made of circus mirrors, zoka, an elixir well past its expiration date? Is haiku, in its current incarnation, literature to be taken seriously, a poetic voice superior to or equal to that sung by Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Doho, Chiyo-ni, and Kobayashi Issa?
crooked teeth driving my frozen grave to work
Lee Gurga, U.S.A.
Modern Haiku, Summer 2013
How is this incomplete sentence a cousin to hokku, a descendent of the poetry Basho and Buson championed? A person with crooked teeth (oddly, Gurga is a dentist) is driving to work, his body freezing, the car apparently without heating. This incomplete sentence, labeled a haiku, is human-centric and leaves little to be interpreted by the reader. What does it tell us about the workings of nature?
can't get no satisfaction
but he know his grammar
Michael Dylan Welch
forty neon buddhas
Note: This is a fictional invent, part of a series, patterned after Ban'ya Natsuishi's Flying Pope anti-haiku poems. It's not serious literature. The poem is formulaic, utilizing zero aesthetic styles, a senryu posing as a haiku.
It's inigmatic to think that faux haiku like this is taken seriously. I wonder what Shiki would think of this poem and others of the same ilk? Would he laud them or chide them in a tirade? This is a question that needs to be seriously considered. What would Basho or Buson think? Or do their opinions matter?
Wrote Yosa Buson:
"What I demonstrate to my disciples is not to imitate Soa's casual way but to long for the sabi [elegant simplicity] and shiori [sensitivity]of Basho, with the intention of getting back to the internal. It is the zen of haikai and the heart-to-heart way."
Excerpted from the preface of Mukashi O Ima in 1774
Tr. by Yuki Sawa and Edith M. Shiffert
Haiku Master Buson
dust remains the perfume of books
Susan Shand, England
Notes From the Gean Haiku Journal
This isn't a poem. It's a statement, an ism suited for a classroom motivational poster.
stormy weather an ipad kind of day
Johnny Baranski, USA
A Hundred Gourds
It's stormy day, a time, in the poet's estimation, to play with his Macintosh i-Pad. There is nothing to interpret. Baranski's poem is not memorable. It tells the reader nothing about nature's creative force. Although it mentions an aspect of nature, the poem's focus is human-centric, the poet's subjective response to increment weather.
pushing my cart faster
through feminine protection
Michael Dylan Welch, USA
Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology
Included in an anthology of haiku, Welch's poem is, in actuality, a senryu, and not a good one at that. It reads like a comedian's aside. There is no mystery, nothing to interpret, zoka is nowhere to be found, the poem expressing what many of my male friends and I felt as junior high school students: the Kotex aisle was to be avoided at all costs.
Cor van den Heuvel's (USA) one word haiku
Posits Michael Dylan Welch about van der Heuvel's one word "alleged" haiku poem:
"It's important that it be seen in the middle of an otherwise blank page, where the space around the poem is part of the poem. I see it as a spring haiku, where a rock might first be appearing through melting snow. We also see the great expanse of the seemingly barren tundra, yet also know that the tundra isn't barren at all -- the scale is just different, encompassing both the large and the small at the same time. It's not every word that can work as a poem like this, but this one does. I'm pleased that the poem is included in the new haiku anthology, 'Haiku in English,' just published by Norton."
One word cannot be defined as a poem, let alone a haiku. There is no meter, no juxtaposition, just a single word, something someone stoned on marijuana might call a poem in a stupefied epiphany. Using Welch's rationale infused with unsupported justification, and lots of imagination, one could call a dictionary a haiku anthology. This alleged poem would not survive serious critique in a mainstream university world literature classroom. With the aforementioned rationale in mind, here is a two-word combination by Welch, the antithesis of poetry, let alone haiku:
Michael Dylan Welch
Nisqually Delta Review
Poetry to be taken seriously?
From the future
a wind arrives
that blows the waterfall apart
This is a surreal, obscure poem. The future is just that, the future. It hasn't occurred and may not. In nature, chaos is a constant. Nothing is fixed, all is moving. Readers have no way of knowing what Natsuishi is referring to or what the focus of the poem is. Matsuo Basho wanted hokku to be accessible to the masses. Accessibility to this poem is limited to those privy to the poet's mindset. Interestingly, in the section on Amazon.com selling his new book, Black Card, Natsuishi has the audacity to allow the following advertisement: "Natsuishi is the greatest haiku master after classic haiku Matsuo Basho." In his dreams, perhaps.
The pregnant cat,
more careful than ever,
crossing the road
Gilles Fabre, Ireland
A pregnant cat is careful as it crosses the road. No epiphany, nothing to interpret, nothing to remember. It is pure observation, suitable as a caption for a photograph of a pregnant cat.
cherry blossom rain
tears wash over
her prom makeup
Randy Brooks, Illinois, U.S.A.
cherry blossom rain: line one is used to illustrate lines two and three. A teenage girl is crying. The reader is not told why. The focus of this poem is the girl crying. It tells us nothing about nature's creative force. It is human-centric, in the Imagist tradition.
pothole—I promise I'll visit
Paul Miller, Bristol Rhode, Island
Frogpond Winter 2012
The relationship between lines one and two is not clear. Does the poet promise to visit the pothole? Is the pothole a metaphor representing something problematic in the poet's life? This two-line assemblage of words tells us nothing about nature, nor is it memorable. The focus is a promise to visit.
Wabi, sabi, makoto, yugen, ma? Where are the aesthetic styles (tools) utilized by the masters when composing hokku? Have these tools been replaced by Western aesthetic styles in sync with the German-based university system, thus giving credence to the contention that haiku is not a reformation of hokku, that it is, instead, an Occidental import with no synchronicity weaving it into a similitude of what it is alleged to have reformed?
of the old, frayed shoelace
Herold Stevenson, California, U.S.A.
Stevenson's verse isn't a haiku or a poem. It's an incomplete sentence:
one thread of the old, frayed shoelace pulls through
It offers nothing revelatory and "tells all." Regardless of the mood it conveys (Cor van der Heuvel cites this example as an exemplary haiku in his essay for Modern Haiku: American Haiku's Future; Autumn 2003), there is nothing via structure, meter, or focus that merits it being labeled a haiku. To label it as such suggests that writing any kind of incomplete sentence using a three-line format can be labeled a haiku. An example I made up to illustrate my point:
the tail at
the end of the makeshift kite
A poem? Absolutely not.
At the summit tree
my exhausted dog lifts his leg;
a dry formality
James W. Hackett
The Haiku and Zen World of James W. Hackett
There is nothing to interpret in the poem. The haiku is a cute aside, nothing more. An old dog lifts his leg out of habit on a tree. No urine comes out. Is this literature to be remembered, emulated, held up as an example in classrooms?
A crew man
has his straw hat
attacked by swallows
Telling readers that a worker's straw hat was attacked by swallows is a "tell all" statement. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that the swallows were not attacking the worker but amassing straw to build their nest which is made of mud, saliva, and natural fibers. This is a sentence, not a poem. It doesn't evoke a surplus of meaning. It is a shasei word sketch. In art, a sketch and a painting are different entities. Oftentimes, a sketch is a preliminary to painting a painting.
What do the above haiku have in common with hokku and the art shared with the world via the poetry of Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Doho, and Kobayashi Issa? Are they to be taken seriously as legitimate literature? Are they memorable? Do they exhibit the depth and breath of pre-Shiki hokku before the deification of Basho? Do they share a common thread? Can they be defined as indigenous to a specific genre?
Do they embody the teaching centric to Matsuo Basho:
"Saigyo's waka, Sogi's renga, Sesshu's painting, Rikyu's tea ceremony---one thread runs through the artistic Ways. And this artistic spirit is to follow zoka, to be a companion to the turning of the four seasons. Nothing one sees is not a flower, nothing one imagines is not the moon. If what is seen is not a flower, one is like a barbarian; if what is imagined in not the moon, one is like a beast. Depart from the barbarian, break away from the beast, follow zoka, return to zoka."
"Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one - when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well-phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural - if the object and yourself are separate - then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit."
Is zoka essential to hokku as Matsuo Basho claims? Is it essential then to haiku which claims to be a reformation of hokku?
In an interview I conducted for Simply Haiku with author and translator, Professor David Landis Barnhill on April 4, 2011, Professor Barnhill elucidated on what zoka is and isn't. He pointed out that zoka in the Japanese language prior to the Meiji adoption of the German-based university system cannot be defined as nature, that translating zoka as nature can be misleading and, as such, doesn't address the term's true meaning, that the notion of nature is a cultural construction.
"What exactly is zoka?" I asked Professor Barnhill. "How is it different from the Western definition of nature?"
"In the West we normally think of nature as a collection of things: trees, toads, rocks, etc. Or we may think of it as a place, such as a wilderness area. Zōka, which I translate as―the Creative, does not refer to either of those. It is the vitality and creativity of nature, its tendency and ability to undergo beautiful and marvelous transformations. It is not a place or collection of things, nor is it something outside nature that is directing it or bringing things into being—thus the translation of―the Creator is misleading. Zōka is the ongoing, continuous self-transforming creativity of the natural world."
Hokku is activity-biased, centered around becomingness (koto), impermanence, zoka (nature's creative force), and objectivity. Hokku is Japanese. Basho centered his hokku around zoka, nature's creative force. To him, all poetry began with zoka and ended with zoka. Zoka translated is not nature as many today interpret it with the modern Japanese language.
It is koto-centric, about something in nature becoming versus already formed (mono). A poet composing hokku follows the example of zoka, creating, sculpting with words something that is always becoming, never static, never permanent, flowing in a continuum of time that is unpredictable. His composition and subject matter were interconnected.
Hokku utilize Japanese aesthetical styles that are not easy to define or comprehend with the German-based university mindset: yugen (depth and mystery), kotodama (the spirit of representation), ma (space and time), and other styles that were intuitive and undefined in the Japanese language of Basho's day. It was the German-based university system that westernized the Japanese language, changing meanings, defining words from a Western point of view, a philosophical tradition that is, as Michael Marra points out in his book, Essays on Japan: Between Aesthetics and Literature, a "variation of the theme of reality and other visible, and invisible, speak-able and unspeakable, with the first term firmly grounded in the second and a single, clear mirror dividing the two."
This change from Japanese thinking to the German-based university system mindset voluntarily adopted by Japan has created many problems since they are two opposing schools of thought. Many who claim to be experts on Japanese short form poetics base their knowledge on seeing and understanding an opposite via an altogether different opposite. They use westernized Japanese to translate and decipher Japanese short form poetry and other literature: a hermeneutical nightmare.
The pre-modern Japanese language contains much more than what is stated in a poem orally according to syntax. Wrote Steven Heine in Philosophy East and West in reference to understanding the ancient Japanese language:
"The multiplicity of the semantic field cannot be contained by the syntactic grammar, and therefore require a suggestive and deliberately ambiguous expression which opens up rather than obstructs their philosophical ground."
Many of the words used today to accomplish this Herculean task didn't exist prior to Japan's adoption of the German-based university system, including, ironically, the term, aesthetics.
What to make of nothingness, what Vera Linhartova called in her book, Sur un Fond Blanc: "a magical dot by which a mere space transforms itself into a blank space."
How does one reconcile using an opposite to make sense of an opposite? What is formlessness, the spirit of things, becomingness, and the role for reversed words (togo or sakashimagoto)? Are they relevant to modern haiku? Does one adopt the argument espoused by many modern haiku poets in the English-speaking world that English-language haiku cannot be defined by the mindset of Basho, that what was, isn't, that poets in the West should jettison Japanese aesthetic styles (tools), infusing in them, instead, Western thinking with Western tools, even though the tools of Modern Japan and the West were forged from the same forge?
A haiku is a haiku is an imagist poem is a word is a senryu is a word painting is a . . .
Not every poem called a haiku is mundane or forgettable. There are exceptions of course. Unfortunately, the bulk are up there with the garbage poetry revered during the Meiji Era that were forgettable, anti-literature, and Hallmark greeting card-like that Shiki rose up against in protest. Some of the good poems composed today are, in actuality, hokku, not haiku. They exude becomingness, personify zoka, and drift freely down Heaven's River, asking to be interpreted by each individual reader.
They are layered with meaning, evoking a surplus of meaning, making use of the unsaid, ma, kokoro, and other Japanese aesthetic styles designed to do what Western aesthetic tools cannot.
In an arena without definition or academic discernment, senryu, haiku, word pictures, single words, Imagist short poems, prose sentences, political statements, and hokku, more often than not, get lumped together forming a literary conglomerate defying definitive identity. Haiku cannot, in its present incarnation, be defined as long as it insists on riding the fence, dancing between the impossibility of magnetic poles that push instead of mesh.
What to do? Will the international haiku community and Japan admit their error or, cede to the reality that Masaoka Shiki's experiment failed? Are they willing to rewrite what was with what is, and finally become the pine Matsuo Basho exhorted his students to become in order to write true hokku?
Matsuo Basho's disciple, Doho, wrote:
"The poet should detach his mind from self . . . and enter into the object, sharing its delicate life and feelings. Where upon a poem forms itself. Description of the object is not enough: unless a poem contains feelings which have come from the object, the object and the poet's self will be separate things."
“Learn about the pine from the pine and the bamboo from the bamboo. . . the poet should detach his mind from self . . . and enter into the object . . . so the poem forms itself when poet and object become one.”
Some examples of well-crafted hokku misclassified as haiku:
waiting up . . . the rain's rhythm becomes a prayer
Ferris Gilli, Georgia, U.S.A.
Frogpond Issue 36.1, 2013
of the deep sea fish
Haiku 21 and Haiku in English
fading light . . .
a swan asks nothing
of the breeze
Claire Everett, Durham, England
Simply Haiku, autumn/winter 2011
a blue heron lifts
Susan Constable, Canada
Simply Haiku, Spring 2011
odors of spring . . .
a young bull's horns
sharpened by the moon
bright moon —
water holds the mirror
of all those present
summer ebb tide —
an urchin’s pace into
the deeper sea
Ljubomir Dragovic, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Uska staza/A Narrow Road , Liber, Belgrade, 2011
evening of the day
a wild boar
comes and eats air
spring mountain path
Tr. by The Kon Nichi Translation Group
Kaneko Tohta: Selected Haiku
one by one
frogs make holes in the pond...
Chen-ou Liu, Canada
The light is teaching
the air that ever travels
how roses are born
On their pilgrimage
the eyes of the passing night:
searching for the lark
As if distracted,
on my way, I touched the tree.
Now it answers me
With footsteps of air
I draw near the steeple bells
that are dreaming me
Agusti Bartra, Catalonia
out of the water...
out of itself
barking its breath
into the rat-hole:
Nick Virgilio, New Jersey, U.S.A.
summer dreams . . .
the night thick with
Svetlana Marisova, Russia/New Zealand
scattered showers the river full of somewhere else
Michele L. Harvey, New York, U.S.A.
Acorn, Issue #26, Spring 2011
the stars sink
into the sand
the river makes
of the moon
Jim Kacian, Virginia, U.S.A.
a day laborer bent
over his shadow
Sasa Vazic, Serbia
the small serrated song
of a frog
a hole in the cloud
an'ya, Oregon, U.S.A.
The Heron's Nest Readers Choice Popular Poets Valentine's Award 2001
In the cow's eyes
the clouds have burnt out ---
Shoshi Fujita, Japan
The Haiku Universe
I long for haiku to kick the bucket and become what it once was before it tried to become something it wasn't: hokku without the Basho-esque waltz of muskmelons swollen with autumn rain peering into circus tents.
Wrote Haruo Shirane in Beyond the Haiku Moment:
"If haiku is to rise to the level of serious poetry, literature that is widely respected and admired, that is taught and studied, commentated on, that can have impact on other non-haiku poets, then it must have a complexity that gives it depth and that allows it to both focus on and rise above the specific moment or time. Basho, Buson and other masters achieved this through various forms of textual density, including metaphor, allegory, symbolism and allusion, as well as through the constant search for new topics."
I am not exalting Matsuo Basho as the consummate hokku poet, the one everyone should emulate. That would be ludicrous. He was far from being a god. He wrote his share of mediocre poetry. We're also not privy to the thousands of hokku he probably jettisoned, opting to only reveal to his readers a thousand poems. He cleared a path, gave us directions, and paved said path with examples. Others equally competent in the composition of hokku followed, including Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, Chiyo-ni. Their hokku should too be studied, perused, and understood.
EXAMPLES of their poetry:
must be my star ---
Kobayashi Issa is a loner staring up at the Milky Way galaxy. He focuses on a star that seems as if it doesn't belong to this starry microcosm. He identified with it. Do you identify with things in nature? Why so? This poem evokes a surplus of interpretative meaning. The Milky Way is a tidal movement, continually becoming (koto). There is mystery is this visage of the Milky Way galaxy: a river that seemingly runs through eternity, unfathomable, untouchable, and always evolving.
It's easy to take the nighttime sky for granted. There's much we can learn from the stars, the moon, the continuum that's eternity. Issa's use of "must" is not a definitive subjective statement. It is an epiphany.
moss in bloom
on his little scars ---
this stone Buddha
The Buddha is a statue made of stone (object). This object (the Buddha) is not the poem's focus. Its focus is what is growing out of the little scratches and chipped away spaces on said object: moss that is blooming. Nature is the consummate artist. It's canvas is everything in its tidal flow and the flow itself. Nothing in life is static. All decomposes, changes, albeit minutely. Issa observes zoka's handiwork. It marvels him to see the seemingly impossible breach the possible, a blooming plant anchored in stone. Statues are man-made. This man-made statute of Buddha is not an outgrowth of nature yet, ironically, nature will, in time, swallow it via decomposition caused by weathering.
the fly is wringing his hands
wringing his feet
Issa was a Pure Land Buddhist. He revered life and saw himself as a part of a global biosphere, neither superior nor inferior. He tells himself to see past the prejudices one harbors towards a so-called lowly fly. Why is the fly wringing his hands, wringing his feet? He doesn't put words into his readers’ mouths. We are asked to make that determination. Life to the poet is more than meets the eye. It's complex. Nature and its creations were, to Issa, more than illustrative modifiers used to illustrate a concept.
are mirrored in its eye . . .
A mere statement? A dragonfly is a small, delicate creature that's older than humankind. Somehow, some way, with patience, Issa manages to see into a dragonfly's eyes, OR . . . is he imagining the act? Distant hills are mirrored in its eyes. It's as if this insect's eyes are a conduit to all we often don't see, the is that isn't, that is. There is beauty in zoka's handiwork, even in what some would perceive to be the ugly eyes of an airborne bug. There is room for interpretation and mental exploration, especially in the utilization of what isn't said. What isn't said is a concept many schooled by the German-based university system have trouble comprehending.
Issa's hokku excerpted from
Tr. by Makoto Ueda
Dew on the Grass
The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa
A mountain pheasant
moves his feet on the branch ---
the long night!
This is a deceptively looking hokku at first, a visage Buson had seen. It is much more, however. Buson was a well-known, successful painter. He valued white space, ma, and makoto, and other aesthetic styles, seeing in them ways to say much with little, drawing out the unseen and unsaid, bringing into play the metaphysical the Western world has trouble comprehending in a way compatible with Eastern conceptualizations. The infusion of various Buddhist doctrines, Daoism, Shinto, and animism in Buson's paintings and hokku are not tangible, concrete, and easy to define or categorize.
The aforementioned aesthetic styles and others not listed, are pathways into a realm the Yamato Japanese language took for granted intuitively and saw no need to define. When Japan adopted the German-based university system during the Meiji Era, they had to make their language comprehensible to the Western mindset; a mindset that comprehended philosophy, psychology, science, and art differently than them. Lacking definitions for many words in the aforementioned areas, what Michael Marra refers to as a “soft language”, Japan adopted Western definitions, a decision that resulted in the semi-intellectual colonization of its culture.
Zoka, once nature's creative force, was now defined as nature, with an emphasis on objects (mono) versus becomingness (koto).
Wrote Michael Marra in his book, Essays on Japan: Between Aesthetics and Literature:
"The importation to Japan of the field of aesthetics forced a re-interpretation of concepts belonging to rhetoric, poetics, and theater in light of aesthetic categories, thus transforming these concepts into Japanese counterparts of Western beauty."
Marra also stated:
"The word 'beauty' coming from the West together with an arsenal of concepts belonging to the field of aesthetics forced the Japanese intelligentsia to rethink their cultural heritage in terms of Western ideas. It rerouted intellectual activities that had developed in Japan over a span of a thousand years into new frameworks of knowledge that used Western sciences as yardsticks for the discussion and evaluation of local cultural products."
A feral bird, the mountain pheasant, moves his feet on a branch. Slowness, and restlessness are inferred. Long night is a term the Japanese use to describe nighttime in winter. Long is the key word. Winter in Japan is frigid. Creature comforts such as propane and electricity did not exist. At night, one relied on candles to see, and wore heavy clothing to withstand the cold. The nights are LONG. Imagine the mountain pheasant, perched on a barren limb. It did not migrate to a warmer region. Like a human, it is restless, finding it hard to sleep, a captive to the frigid night. Like the cold night, its tail is long. It's a large pheasant with a rich coppery chestnut plumage, yellowish bill, brown iris and red facial skin. The female is a brown bird with grayish brown upper parts and buff barred dark brown below. How much of the bird was seen by Buson? The mountain pheasant avoids human beings. Where was Buson when he espied this scene? Outdoors with the bird, Buson could relate to the cold bird: its restlessness, loneliness, and sleeplessness. Buson became one with the pheasant, momentarily, in a sensory and emotive manner.
of my beloved village,
the color of the walls!
The Japanese language uses no punctuation, thus, the comma inserted at the end of line two, was placed there by the translators to indicate a pause, in lieu of an indefinable cutting word that accomplished the same. Buson is visiting his beloved village. He sees dragonflies on the village walls. At the end of line two, there is a pause (ma), what Denis Garrison calls “dreaming room”; a moment to think, anticipate, and conceive.
of my beloved village (PAUSE)
the color of the walls!
The walls were old, weathered, not beautiful to the eye. Enter the dragonflies dripping from zoka's paintbrush. The reception of Buson to zoka's artistry is implied. There is no exclamation mark in the original. How would you respond to the presence of many dragonflies on a wall in your hometown around or near the family home? Would you take them for granted, not noticing them, their beauty, and the beauty they paint on the wall with their presence? What can be learned about nature and one's self from this visage? What emotions and memories does this evoke in your mindset?
to one who is going over the mountains --
the withered field!
The withered field contrasted with “saying goodbye” to someone evokes a surplus of interpretative meaning. Withered calls to mind something dying, something old, something lacking sustenance. Combining this to saying goodbye to someone is emotive, stirring. Is this person dying or about to die? Will this be the last time the poet will see this person? We, as is everything in nature, are impermanent, as are our theories and conceptualizations. The only constant is change. Observing nature outside the sphere of conceptualization, we can see beyond the now of our limited mindset, into a continuum of infinite possibilities.
separating from the bell,
the bell's voice
Buson makes excellent use of juxtaposition, contrasting coolness with the sound of the bell leaving the bell. Does the bell have a voice? Buson uses personification, a no no in some English-language haiku circles. An inanimate object, a bell has no voice. Yet, when it is rung, it has a sound that's song-like. Is the bell's sound (song) cold, or is coolness the mood it evokes when rung, its vibrant, resonant sound fading fast? What mood does it evoke in your mindset? Yugen (depth and mystery) exudes from this hokku, offering a cornucopia of interpretative possibilities.
Buson's Hokku excerpted from
Yosa Buson Haiku Master Buson
Tr. by Yuki Sawa and Edith M. Shiffert
soaring skylark ---
what do you think
of the limitless sky?
Question haiku are a familiar sight on online haiku workshops. It is easy to write a question. Look at an animal or some other animate or inanimate object and ask it a question. What makes Chiyo-ni's hokku different and stand out? A skylark is soaring, which by inference, means it is flying high in the sky. The sky is limitless. Chiyo-ni was a Zen Buddhist nun and a contemporary of Basho. They knew one another. How did she as a Zen Buddhist view eternity, a sky without end? Did she really ask the skylark a question or was this a literary invent? What did she want to know beyond what she already knew? There is much people can learn when they step out of themselves, leaving preconceptions behind. To get an answer, Chiyo-ni becomes the skylark.
left to the world
now it's just the sound of the pine
What was once a bird's song (beautiful by inference) has dissipated, the sound unable to stop, thrusting forward into infinity. It no longer can be heard by the poet except in his memory bank, and the senses they affect. The only sound the poet can hear at the moment is the sound of a pine tree caused by wind, moisture, sunlight, and other sounds. The song Chiyo-ni and others heard at first was now relegated to memory and the possibilities the memory of it can paint. Nothing is static in nature. Zoka is a sleepless artist, always creating. Chiyo-ni's use of "just" in line three creates a mood of aloneness, and pining for what was. A single well-placed word can be a masterful brushstroke, setting the tone for a hokku.
Telling all in a hokku is writing a sentence, complete or incomplete. It's via the infusion of kotodama, yugen, kokoro, makoto, and other Japanese aesthetic styles that transform a poem with a limitation of syllables into serious literature capable of entwining the visible and invisible, the said and unsaid, the felt and unfelt, into a vehicle that transcends the obvious, saying with a few words what many poets in the West say with many words.
this world's flower ---
What is the world's flower? In Japan, flowers are often used to convey what can't be spoken (kotodama). Is the term, as used in this hokku, metaphorical? What is the world's flower? Is it the Planet Earth? Chiyo-ni doesn't tell us. There is yugen and ambiguity in her poem, a poem that stimulates emotive response and emotional involvement.
it is only water ---
rouge flower dew
Female hokku poets were rare during Basho's day, the role of a woman in Japanese culture subjugated to a secondary role, beneath men. Interestingly, it was a belief held by R. H. Blyth: "haiku poetesses are only fifth class. . ."
A History of Haiku, Volume One
This poem is embellished with a feminine touch and, therefore, a feminine view of life in pre-modern Japan. When rouge flower dew is dropped, it is no longer a human-made product comprised of water, coloring, and scent. From whence it came, it returned. What was once water, was transformed into a human beauty product, and eventually returned to its original form, the water from whence it came. Everything in some way or another comes from nature. It is what the finite human mind does to things that create artificiality. Eventually, however, a patient, persistent nature will digest what is, turning it back into what was and will be. This is a subtle poem, reminding us that we are impermanent as well as everything we create. How this is interpreted by each individual reader is a subjective journey dependent upon cultural memory, language, experience, education, genetic imprint, and biospheric assimilation.
Tr. by Patricia Donovan and Yoshie Ishibashi,
excerpted from Chiyo-ni Woman Haiku Master
None of the great hokku masters prior to the Meiji Reformation wrote great poems every time they sat down to compose a poem. They were trailblazers, exploring the world around them, under them, above them, and inside themselves. They shared in common a respect for hokku, the path that took them there, a strong work ethic, and an awe for zoka. Nature to them was not a series of formed objects (mono). It was the personification of zoka, nature's creative force. All in life is in motion, nothing is static, everything changing, impermanent, in a continuum of impersonal expression. Pioneers, yes, but more importantly, they were artists who paid their dues, took the craft seriously, and saw hokku as literature. They didn't write quickie, hackneyed poems. They had their own original voices, yet weren't arrogant, thinking they'd arrived, seeking to change something they hadn't fully explored. Hokku wasn't a genre to reform, it was a pathway to live, breathe, and walk down, their cultural memories and heartbeats in tune with zoka. The proof is in their poetry. Compare their hokku, even their worst, with the Western invent, haiku.
Wrote John O'Connor in his essay, Back to the Future, for the New Zealand Poetry Society:
"Haiku basics are no longer well understood. Yet without them it is impossible to write good haiku."
Basho, Buson, Issa, and Chiyo-ni were teachers and poets who made a difference. They elevated the medium to new heights that endure today. There is no living modern haiku master. Why? Most people cannot quote a single haiku penned by another poet with the exception of a gimmicky verse or the infamous joke-ku, tundra. Why? And why isn't haiku taken seriously by the Western public school system? Why is what is taught in school different from what is taught by haiku associations, blog teachers, and in how-to handbooks? Why isn't haiku taken seriously as literature by the literary mainstream outside of haiku circles?
Why can't haiku be defined? Why has it become an anything-goes non-genre that sticks its tongue out at convention? Decades from now, will this versification withstand the test of time and be studied, parsed, and expanded upon in the German-based university system that bred it? Will it stubbornly hold onto its Japanese moniker, haiku, even though it is a colonized Western invent?
Is it possible to compose hokku that's relevant, indigenous, and in sync with nature's creative force? Is nature itself relevant? Have we, as human beings, outgrown the need to identify with something far more dynamic and complex than the biosphere we've sculpted with our finite minds and limited understanding regarding the continuum of becomingness that is nature? Is the symbiotic identification and conjugal connection with zoka more than kigo or seasonal words? What is the role of nature in hokku?
What does the word, nature, mean beyond objects? Can a person living in Los Angeles, California, or Tokyo, Japan, where buildings and pavements cover almost every square inch and the skies are thick with smoke belched out of motor vehicles and factories, write poetry that somehow connects with the tidal flow of nature?
Is hokku a pathway into the now and then, a river without end, sajiki's only a map; seasonal words, tour guides showing us something beyond the aha, beyond the comfortable mirror we stare into when we are unable to comprehend what Basho, Doho, Buson, Chiyo-ni, and Issa understood, perched somewhere above the floating world untouched by the German-based university mindset that has a hard time dealing with the metaphysical OM and IS and ISN'T . . . Nature is everywhere, continually sculpting the planet, never static; human beings in their own microcosms thinking they're above it all, and know it all, and have no need for the unseen, unsaid, and whatever else they can't explain, the yellow brick road closed for repairs . . . and me, unable to shut up, unable to stop composing hokku and waka, thinking haiku took a wrong turn with Shiki who meant well, but . . . it's early in the morning. I desire to detach my mind from preconceptions, to enter into the bamboo, sense its delicate life and feelings, sip with it sunlight, the Cheshire Cat smiling, Basho and Doho folding clouds into paper cranes that spew words . . . my mind dancing with the Great Clod on a butterfly's wing with Chuang Tzu.
Those composing and promoting haiku today are admonished to pay attention to the following words delivered by Japanese scholar Nishi Amane in 1877 before Japanese Emperor Meiji and his court during a series of lectures, later published as The Theory of Aesthetics:
"If one composes poems and songs without following rules at all, merely expressing whatever comes to mind, surely what results is not a form of poetry. If a road is very dangerous, winding to the right, returning to the left, climbing a precipice, then it must not be called a road. This necessity of sameness in difference: proportion and balance cannot be lacking.”
Tr. by Professor Michael F. Marra
Modern Japanese Aesthetics
Jasmine tea, anyone?
Republished from Simple Haiku, Spring-Summer 2013, by the author's permission.